Trying to silence criticism over the coronavirus pandemic, China is deploying a well-used weapon — trade sanctions. Beijing has blocked some imports of Australian beef after Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government, endorsed by Washington, called for a robust inquiry into the origins of the outbreak and rebuffed Chinese demands to back off.
The move is the first time Beijing has used access to its huge markets as leverage in its campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak. But it has used the tactic regularly in political disputes over the past decade.
“What China is really doing is sending a political shot across the bows,” said Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank. “They're saying to Australia: Don't make a fuss about an open and independent investigation.” China has too much at stake to destroy its trading relationship with Australia entirely, Jennings said, and has left alone its biggest Australian imports like iron ore and coal because it needs a reliable supplier.
But Australia is not backing down. “We are standing our ground on our values and the things that we know are always important,” Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. He said Australia draws clear lines on certain issues “and those things are not to be traded, ever."
Last year, Beijing blocked imports of canola as it stepped up pressure for Canada to release a Huawei executive who was detained on US charges. It blocked imports of Philippine bananas in 2012 in a dispute over territory in South China Sea. In 2010, it blocked imports of Norwegian salmon and cancelled trade talks after Liu Xiaobo got Nobel Peace Prize.